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Mike Creger: City may pay for the piping

When ASCAP sends you a letter, some liken it to a visit from the mafia.

They want their money or soon you'll be in court or out of business.

"They're brutal," said Dunnigan's Pub owner Matt Davitt. Don't worry, he pays his dues, so there won't be any repercussions for him speaking frankly. "They were hounding me daily."

Don't pay and you can face paying damages of $750 per song infringement and all attorney and court costs.

ASCAP is the acronym for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. It collects licensing fees and royalties for music creators under federal copyright law. For most commercial enterprises, like Davitt's Two Harbors bar, there is a flat fee paid each year to cover live and recorded music heard in the business.

So it came as a surprise when the city of Two Harbors got a letter in the mail suggesting it pay royalties for any music it plays. Think parade music, the city band, or any recording played over city speakers or at events.

Davitt says that when he opened his bar a few years ago, the royalties question didn't occur to him. Juke boxes are covered in rental fees but live music is the end user's responsibility, not that of the performer. Davitt's $450 annual fee covers all the music played at the bar.

Now ASCAP is asking cities to pony up as well, from $305 for small places like Two Harbors to $4,600 for cities with populations of 500,000 or more.

After speaking with ASCAP's senior vice president for licensing, Vincent Candilora, it sounds like we may not have to get out the pitchforks and rakes and storm the Nashville headquarters.

He said that 10 years ago, representatives of large cities with multiple venues where music was played for profit wanted to create a flat fee system with ASCAP and other licensing companies. ASCAP agreed to an "umbrella agreement," Candilora said, so cities wouldn't have to submit royalties paperwork for each venue or event.

"I guess we're getting down to the smaller municipalities," he said of the Two Harbors letter. Places like Duluth pay royalties because they have commercial venues like Bayfront Park or the DECC. When told about the likely use of music in Two Harbors, Candilora said ASCAP likely is "not going to pursue" them. Parades? No. City band? No. Skating rink? No. Community center. No.

It's not exactly clear where ASCAP draws the line, though it seems to be a "if you make money, we make money" proposition. And buying sheet music doesn't mean you've purchased the right to perform music, ASCAP bylaws emphasize.

And it really isn't clear how schools are covered. The Lake Superior School District does not pay an annual fee for band and choir music. There's no word from ASCAP on its education policy.

ASCAP says it needs to treat every entity equally in order to avoid discrimination lawsuits.

Candilora said that while there are "licensing managers" in all regions of the country who go around and check for compliance with royalties rules, they are mostly focused on "commercial venues." The association reports that 83 cents of each dollar it collects goes to its members.

"We have a large field staff but they are looking at regular businesses, hotels, bars."

If the city wants to eliminate any chance of noncompliance, it could simply pay the $305, Candilora said, or ask to "opt out" since it's likely none of the city uses require licensing.

As discussed with city attorney Steve Overum Monday night at the city council meeting, signing up with ASCAP could bring the smaller royalties companies asking for money as well. ASCAP is the largest rights organization in the nation but there is also BMI and SESAC.

That happened in New Milford, Conn., after the mayor and council members decided to ignore its ASCAP letter in 2006. At issue was music played over speakers at the town green. Last year, BMI and SESAC sent bills as well. Council members called it extortion for a non-profit public use.

So far, there have been no lawsuits. Candilora said the message is to get municipalities educated on licensing.

Davitt calls the ASCAP fees he pays for his bar "steep for the little place I have -- just to play their music." He said it's just another fee that small businesses have to put up with and still try and survive. "You can't fight them."

Mike is the editor of the News-Chronicle. Contact him at or at 834-2141.